Sacramental Submersion: Becoming a Cave Diver in Mexico

8 minute read - 6 months ago - Full Size Images

When I first turned up to the dive shop in Cancún, Juan, a Mexican diving instructor with a fearsome figure but a surprisingly gentle demeanour, smiles at me and says "so, as we both know, Cave Diving is the most dangerous recreational sport in the world."

This remark immediately prompted me to reconsider why the hell I was in Mexico in the first place, where I had just been scammed on my taxi in from the airport, let alone to do something as insane as that. So I nervously smiled and slowly nodded.

Paradoxically, acknowledging the inherent risk in the technical sport I've decided to embrace brought a sense of comfort amidst the intense nerves I was suffering from. It validated the legitimacy of my, very normal, and very expected, fear of dying to asphyxiation.

Despite Juan's reassurance that nervousness is a positive sign of readiness, and a good benchmark for establishing an important level of respect for the caves we decide to venture into; my leg bounced away under the table as the start of my one-on-one adventure with Juan on how not to die in a cave began.

My Instructor Juan (left) and OW Gabriel (right) - my dive team on my first introductory cavern at Kin Ha

Easy Does It: Getting Started

A week ago I commenced my cave diving training, with commutes to the nearby Cenotes (caves) located in Tulum and Playa del Carmen. I chose Squalo Divers in Cancún because they turned up online with a great recreational reputation with PADI; and upon chatting to the Course Director there, mentioned he'd be teaching me through both the US (TDI) and UK (RAID) systems to ensure I was equipped with all the knowledge and understanding needing to safely explore caves. I chatted to a few other dive centers, and chance had it that Juan had availability in the dates I was arriving in Mexico.

Technical diving is a different game when it comes to selecting an instructor. In place of picking a place out of reputation, and affordability - picking a technical diving instructor is picking a mentor, a buddy and a trusted friend who you'll be diving, driving and hanging out with for weeks, sometimes months at a time. It's also picking someone who you'd entrust your life with in a complex, high-stakes environment.

One of the cavern entrances at Cenote Kin Ha

The first 5 pages in the textbook for "Diving in Overhead Environments" by the Technical Diving Institute (TDI) describes the many reasons why Cave Diving is an attractive sport to do, including exploring some of the world's most extraordinary "alienlike" environments underground; or seeing first hand how water flows and transforms underneath sometimes bustling cities above. A Cenote is a term that is only used in Mexico and comes from the Mayan word dzonot meaning abyss. For Mayan culture, Cenotes were considered sources of life, in addition to providing water, they were an entrance to another world and a centre of communion with the gods [1].

The textbook explicitly details Cave Diving for ego or optics goes against the principles of a safe underwater cave explorer. The textbook does this not to scare you, I think, but to equip you in assessing those who you choose to dive with; as if you're considering cave diving, you're probably already a pretty decent diver, or on a solid track to be one - and this isn't a sport for the faint of heart. Juan described multiple students, ranging from scientists in Costa Rica to Mexican archaeologists, that upon entering their first cave, cancelled their entire course on the spot and frantically asked to leave the cave immediately.

Lowering equipment via rope to Cenote Kin Ha below, Mexico

In my case, some would remark that I'm probably pursuing cave diving a bit soon in my dive career, having only clocked 100 dives recreationally. Or that I'm doing it under circumstances I shouldn't, being heavily grief stricken from the loss of my husband so recently. So I made it clear with my instructor, I wanted to be challenged and tested during training, before we even consider diving into any caves. So from there, we spent several days in open water and some large caverns (like the one on the cover of this article) running through safety checks, buoyancy improvements and equipment familiarisation (dual backmount) optimisation.

Unlike recreational diving, where you can head straight to the surface if your buddy (your dive partner) panics; in caves, there is a non-zero chance you both die. Sometimes, even if you are lucky to calm down, you're a "dead man swimming" because you're not out of air yet, but it's now too far to get back.

An entrance to a Cenote

A Pause

After the first five days completing my TDI Cavern and Introduction to Caverns course, we took a break before progressing to the Full Cave course.

I stopped by Chichun Itza, and the great calendar El Castillo on one of my days off. A building with details and an entrancing old grace that, like caves, reduces the problems of your small place in the world to a seemingly insignificant blip in the vastness of the tapestry of humankind.

A highly venomous snake encountered nearby a Cenote 

On the drive along to Chichen Itza, we stopped for a moment in Valladolid, a small town along the way. On the drive, my tour guide introduces herself, remarking she was a cave diver herself for decades, having made the cover of several diving magazines as a "sexy young woman, before the 45 kilos turned up".

I found this to be such a coincidence, so I tapped her on the shoulder from behind, mentioning that I'm from Australia and here for some cave exploration training myself. She turned around and said "That's awesome! Who's your instructor?". I replied, "Juan!" To which her eyes widened with momentary panic. Much to her dismay, Juan and Marcela were lovers decades ago, before breaking it off and splitting off into different specialisations. They both started together as cave divers  in Canada.

After the chat in the car, I reflected on my time in the Cenotes of Mexico, and my encounter with El Castillo. I see them both as parallel doses of the world is big, and you are small. Not only in the context of the world in this immediate moment, with billions of independent, unique threads of human life occurring at any one moment; but also the trillions of moments that have come before; before life as we know it today, but also before humankind itself. And that coincidences and chance moments of wonder in life also happen despite this.

El Castillo, Chichun Itza, Mexico

Sacramental Submersion: Finding your Flow

Juan remarked that out of all the training he's done as a SCUBA instructor over a decades long career spanning multiple continents, that the cave diving training he did was one of the most influential in improving his skills as a diver, and as a person overall. He remarked how the most excellent divers, particularly in cave diving, are those who can apply common sense. And that the most common divers, are those who believe in technical excellence above common sense. In other words, keep shit simple. And that applies to many parts of our lives.

Having now finished the TDI full cave course, I think I agree that when cavern diving (not even caves where there's no natural light), you become hyper-aware of the equipment you have, what is and isn't going to be a potential problem, and routinely running your checks over and over again before you delve into a passage. You seek to minimise the potential for failure, by reducing equipment where possible, in line with suitable redundancy. You also, for a moment, look at the sun in a different way before dipping your head into the darkness below. Religiously, you manage the following:

  1. Run, hug and maintain your guideline, the line that shows you the way out,
  2. Manage your buoyancy, your position in the water across the x, y, z, roll and yaw axes to ensure you don't hit anything delicate
  3. Control your breathing to minimise air usage to maximise exploration, and perhaps manage dropping tanks off with their own respective gas mixtures
  4. Ensure adherance to the plan to minimise decompression if you're navigating oscillating depths in windy passages

For someone dealing with a devastating loss, where your mind frequently wanders,  or negative thoughts can trigger spirals - this experience has been remarkably transformative in finding my peace, and my flow; in a deeply secluded, hauntingly quiet and spectacular space. Even the outside walks through the jungle exhuberate a special mystique that takes you mentally, far far away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Walking through the surrounding rich jungle of Cenote Kin-Ha

I draw diving into a cave as analogous to walking into a church.  You become inwardly focused, outwardly mindful and feel connectedness to the power of forces greater than yourself (these forces, to me, being geological and physical processes spanning eons I couldn't begin to comprehend). I suspect this is loosely related to the positive psychological concept of practicing Awe [2] that comes with spiritual practice.

Sacramental Submersion, to me, represents finding connectivity with the earth and all the systems of the universe; leaving your problems, concerns and worries at the door before you walk into a: [church | cave | happy place for you].

Diving is inherently scary. You're submerging yourself as a land-based mammal into a giant abyss, and are reliant on your equipment to survive. You're literally fighting evolution, and winning. There's nothing to take your mind off things like problem solving in high-stakes, where the sweat from your eyebrows vanish into the dark, ever-so-slightly-acidic cave water.

Diving in a giant, dark cave with side tunnels flaunting their pristine, white skeletal walls to lure you in; a minefield of sparkling silt along the cave floor poised to blind you from one misplaced fin kick; to swim to places humans used to walk over to pray in thousands of years ago - now that's just plain special, and such a great way to get my mind off things these past few weeks.

POV in Cenote Tajma Ha, Mexico